I’m not sure how I stumbled onto the work of Aixe Djelal (pronounced “eye-SHAY ja-LAL”), but now I find myself checking her latest images several times per week. I think it’s the randomness of them, or maybe it’s how she captures the ephemeral vignettes I often see myself but rarely capture.
Djelal, the woman behind the BicycleHead website and Instagram account has been publishing (almost) daily images of Portland bike riders since May 2013. What sets her images apart is that she never even looks at her subject and all her shots are completely hands-free.
That’s because Djelal is a self-described “helmetographer” whose images are created with a camera mounted to her helmet that’s always on during her daily bike commute. The result is a running narrative of what it’s like to ride a bike in Portland in all it’s exhilirating, fun, stressful, annoying — and always interesting — glory.
I recently caught up with Djelal and asked her a few questions via email…
First, a bit of personal background. What part of town do you live in?
I live in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Southeast Portland.
How long have you lived in Portland?
I moved here in 1989 to go to Reed College, and I’ve lived here ever since (with the exception of graduate school in Arizona, which made me love cycling in Portland even more). The bicycle has been my primary form of transportation most of my life.
What do you do when not taking bike photos?
I’m a senior web project manager at OHSU and I also help my husband Matt Proctor run his electric guitar making business, M-tone Guitars. When I’m not riding my bike, you can usually find me walking all over Portland. I also like to take photos of local bands and BMX freestyle jams, and I daydream about extending my helmetography project all over the world.
What motived you to start BicycleHead?
In 2013, an irate driver tried to run me off the road in downtown Portland. I got a helmet camera to capture video of my rides in case another driver threw a baby fit about cyclists using the road. Once I saw a couple of my rides on video, I realized I was getting some cool scenes of Portland that would be a lot more interesting as still photography. The goal of my helmetography is to share Portland from a year-round bicycle commuter’s point of view. People all over the world seem to have an interest in Portland bicycle culture right now, and my helmetography helps paint a picture of what it’s like to ride here.
What is your camera set-up and how do you get your shots?
I use a Contour Roam2 camera mounted on a Bell Muni helmet. The camera has a 170 degree lens which gives the photos a slightly fish-eyed dreamy look. It is set to intervelometer mode: as soon as I turn it on it automatically shoots a still every three seconds. I discovered that I get better photos when I point the camera backwards, so I do that most of the time. My standard commute is six miles round trip, though sometimes I will ride different, longer routes to keep the helmetography fresh. I like riding slowly, so every night I sort through 500-900 photos and keep maybe a couple. It’s a somewhat compulsive, time consuming project, but I really love sharing Portland through my bicycle commuter lens.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve captured on camera?
Some of my most interesting shots are of infrequent snow (mostly because it’s unusual), tail lights in thick fog, a guy shoving a crossfit sled down the street like Sisyphus, a right to sleep demonstration that was an offshoot of Occupy Portland, and most recently, the protest ride in response to the uptick of motorists hitting cyclists in May 2015. After 26 years, I consider Portland a fairly normal place to live and ride, but when people from other places see my photos they are surprised how many cyclists there are on the road.At this point I plan to keep on going with my helmetography. I enjoy it, others seem to as well, and I am happy show what a joy it is to ride a bicycle!
Check out a few more of Djelal’s images below, or see them all at BicycleHead.com.